The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists today released its annual report on threats to press freedom around the world. According to the media watchdog, the number of imprisoned journalists rose sharply in 2002, while a decline in the number of global conflicts last year contributed to a decrease in the number of journalists killed. RFE/RL looks at the situation in Central and Eastern Europe, as well as in Russia and the former Soviet Union.
Prague, 31 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- In January 2002, a court in China sentenced journalist Jiang Weiping to eight years in prison. Jiang was arrested in December 2000 after writing a series of articles for the Hong Kong monthly "Qianshao" (Front Line) about corruption in northeastern China.
Although U.S. government and United Nations officials have demanded Jiang's release, there has been no progress in his case.
Jiang is one of 39 journalists now imprisoned in China, making it the world's leading jailer of journalists for the fourth year in a row.
Jiang's case is one of hundreds highlighted in the Committee to Protect Journalists' (CPJ) annual report on the world's changing press-freedom landscape. The report released today, titled "Attacks on the Press in 2002," documents some 500 cases of media repression in 120 countries last year, including assassination, assault, imprisonment, censorship, and legal harassment.
Alex Lupis is the Europe and Central Asia coordinator at the CPJ, a New York-based nonprofit organization dedicated to defending press freedom worldwide. He told RFE/RL that the CPJ report notes three general trends.
First, the number of journalists imprisoned in retaliation for their work rose sharply for the second year in a row. "There were 136 journalists in jail at the end of 2002, which is a 15 percent increase from 2001 and a shocking 68 percent increase since the end of 2000, when only 81 journalists were imprisoned. China is the world's leading jailer of journalists for the fourth year in a row now. They arrested five more journalists over the past year, and by the end of 2002 had some 39 journalists behind bars," Lupis said.
Second, the report found that 19 journalists were killed worldwide in 2002 as a direct result of their work, a sharp decrease from 2001, when 37 were killed. Lupis pointed out that last year's figure is the lowest number of journalists killed in the line of duty since the CPJ began tracking such deaths in 1985.
According to a press release, a decline in the number of global conflicts last year contributed to the decrease. "Most of the journalists killed in 2002 were not covering conflicts but were instead killed in retaliation for reporting on sensitive political issues, like government corruption in countries like Colombia, the Philippines, Russia, and Pakistan," Lupis said.
And third, Lupis said, government officials are invoking "national security" concerns to legitimize new restrictions on the press and limit access to conflicts. The most prominent example was Russia's clampdown on the press following the disastrous Moscow-theater hostage crisis in October. More than 120 hostages died after Russian forces used an opiate-based gas to incapacitate Chechen separatists who had stormed the theater.
Since then, Lupis stressed, the Kremlin has maintained a "very aggressive" policy of trying to manage and restrain independent journalists.
Soria Blatman is the specialist for Europe at the Paris-based press watchdog Reporters Without Borders. She said that the greatest limitations on press freedom in Europe in 2002 occurred in Russia. "We saw, for example, after the hostage-taking episode in Moscow, that Russian media have been punished for their coverage of this episode and, generally speaking, for all matters regarding Chechnya," Blatman said.
Broadly speaking, the trend in the former Soviet republics is negative and getting worse, Lupis maintains. This trend, he added, does not only materialize in government obstruction of media activities but also in government unwillingness to punish individuals who retaliated against journalists. "Turkmenistan remains a horrible place [for journalists]. We have no reports of even any independent journalism there. Belarus, of course, [also] remains a horrible place. Several journalists were imprisoned last year in retaliation for criticizing President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. And, of course, press-freedom conditions in Kazakhstan deteriorated significantly because of a state-sponsored campaign to intimidate journalists who criticized the government," Lupis said.
In Uzbekistan, Lupis said, the government has maintained a firm grip on media outlets, although censorship was officially abolished in May 2002.
A report on European media freedom presented to the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly two months ago mentions instances of violence and murder against reporters in Armenia, Georgia, and Macedonia. Legal harassment in the form of defamation lawsuits or very high fines is also mentioned as a threat to the existence of a free media in countries such as Azerbaijan, Belarus, Croatia, Russia, Ukraine, and Poland.
The document calls the number of journalists attacked or killed in Russia and Ukraine "alarming." Tytti Isohookana-Asunmaa is PACE's rapporteur on freedom of expression in the media in Europe. "In some Eastern and Central European countries, there are difficulties with physical violence, because we know that, for instance, in Russia and in Ukraine, journalists have been killed...and some other [forms of] harassment happen constantly," Isohookana-Asunmaa said.
Although the number of journalists in prison rose in 2002, Lupis pointed out that there were some positive trends in press freedom, mostly in Central Europe. He said these came about largely as a result of efforts by regional governments to join organizations such as NATO and the European Union. "For example, in Slovakia last year, they suspended parts of their criminal defamation laws. In the Czech Republic [last] summer, there was an assassination attempt against a journalist, and the police responded quite strongly, which really stands in contrast to how the police have responded to such situations in the Balkans and in the former Soviet Union," Lupis said.
In July, Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov granted a broadcasting license to the Asia Plus news agency, which the agency had been seeking for years. Lupis also characterized that move as positive.
(The entire report is available at http://www.cpj.org.)